I have to be honest. You deserve no less… this is CFCnet after all. I expected Manchester United to hit the ground running this season. No fundamental squad changes. No serious injuries, bar the obvious one to their best player… but hey, that’s what the megabuck squad is for, right? Pretty much every key area of the team is relatively youthful, bar the keeper. I was anticipating a Hamilton-esque screech off the line, and the gradual upswing through the gears that could only be given further momentum as Cristiano Ronaldo returned to full fitness.
So the biggest surprise was the way they were set up to play last Sunday. Perhaps Sir Alex has learned more from his Portuguese nemesis than he’s willing to admit, because from the moment Park Ji-Sung managed to cuff the ball past Petr Cech, pretty much all the champions did was defend.
Alright, there’s no shame in conceding 60-odd per cent of the possession at the Bridge, but United fans surely must be wondering if their manager genuinely thought he could contain Chelsea for 70 full minutes? As he himself mentioned, it would have made far more sense to push on for another, especially with Tevez and Ronaldo available from the bench. Instead, we were treated to the now-familiar site of an increasingly isolated Wayne Rooney – otherwise known as a booking waiting for somewhere to happen – and the blushes of a visiting manager saved by the beneficence of a misfiring Anelka and a lenient referee. Rather unusual, as Felipe Scolari pointed out, to stop a game with the home team about to line up a free kick 20 yards from goal and Lampard, Ballack and Drogba all itching to hit it.
Much is being made, on this site and others, of the “Scolari effect”. There is a suggestion that the big Brazilian has brought a fluidity and freedom of expression to the Blues that the previous two managers either eschewed or were incapable of. There’s no doubt that Chelsea’s engine room looks liberated by the introduction of Deco – he seems to be the player that Frank Lampard has waited his entire career to play alongside – but the Portuguese artist was missing from the line-up last week and yet Chelsea still passed the ball around their opponents for long swathes of the game, particularly in the second half. They retain the unhurried confidence of Mourinho’s best sides: the knowledge that they shouldn’t panic, that if they continue to play at their own pace and with the measured calm that characterises their best moves, they will score against anyone. But the pass and move play is quicker, more flexible and with more purpose. Rarely do we see them spend 90 seconds demonstrating how good they are at passing the ball from fullback to centre-half and back again.
So last Sunday was a frustrating experience for the watching Chelsea fans. United will play worse in plenty of games this season and still take all three points. But I don’t think they’ll come under siege to that extent and escape with a share of the spoils. There’s still plenty of time to find their rhythm and settle into the season. But at the moment, Chelsea – alright, and Arsenal – are using their ‘work in progress’ teams to far greater effect than last season’s double champions. Learning on the job… you can’t beat it.